Preventing obesity in children is the focus of a new UI program funded by a $4.5 million federal grant.
A five-year $4.5 million USDA grant to UI researchers will establish the Illinois Transdisciplinary Obesity Prevention Program, an innovative research-based program that will combine a Ph.D. with a master’s in public health degree focused on child obesity prevention. Clockwise from bottom right: I-TOPP director Sharon Donovan, the Melissa M. Noel Professor in the department of food science and human nutrition; along with I-TOPP associate directors: Barbara Fiese, director of the UI’s Family Resiliency Center; David Buchner, the Shahid and Ann Carlson Khan Professor in Applied Health Sciences and director of the MPH program; and Rodney Johnson, professor of animal sciences and director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences.
Photo by David Riecks, ACES-ITCS
The five-year grant, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, establishes the Illinois Transdisciplinary Obesity Prevention Program, or I-TOPP. The program will combine a doctoral degree with a master's in public health.
"This exciting new program allows us to develop novel hypotheses and approaches as researchers come together from their individual areas of expertise to solve the problem of child obesity," said Sharon Donovan, the Melissa M. Noel Professor in the department of food science and human nutrition and director of the new program.
Students will be taught to think broadly about child obesity, because research has shown that no single approach adequately addresses the problem, Donovan said.
"By combining training in research and public health interventions, these students will be uniquely qualified to develop, implement and evaluate programs targeting childhood obesity prevention," Donovan said.
Graduates will use research and public health practice skills to address one of the nation's most urgent public health problems, said David Buchner, an associate director of the program and the head of the UI master's in public health program.
The new degree will integrate research in nutrition, child development and family studies, physical activity, public health science and practice, economics, practices in child care centers, and the effects of media. Students will develop and test transdisciplinary interventions to prevent childhood obesity, Donovan said.
I-TOPP will build on transdisciplinary projects in the UI Synergistic Theory and Research on Obesity and Nutrition Group, which looks at how genes, family, community, child care providers, culture, and media contribute to childhood obesity.
Faculty members will help I-TOPP students create research programs, said Barbara Fiese, an associate director of the program.
"They'll learn to ask the kinds of questions and think in ways that we haven't been trained to do," said Fiese, the director of the UI's Family Resiliency Center and holder of the Pampered Chef Ltd. Endowed Chair in Family Resiliency.
Fiese said that her generation of scientists has had to teach themselves to become good transdisciplinary collaborators. Because I-TOPP will have a strong evaluation component, the scientists will learn whether this kind of collaboration can be taught.
"At the end of the students' graduate program, we will be assessing these students, comparing them to students who have received just the MPH and Ph.D. degrees to see how successful we've been in helping our I-TOPP scholars to achieve this broader, more transdisciplinary view," Donovan said.
The program will be administered in the UI Division of Nutritional Sciences, a pioneer in modeling transdisciplinary education, said Rodney Johnson, the director of the division and an associate director of I-TOPP.
"This new program is consistent with DNS goals," Johnson said. "It is what we are about."
The program will create courses, develop a seminar series, host an annual conference, and, through a lecture series, promote cross-disciplinary interactions among UI faculty members and international leaders.
I-TOPP students will receive a stipend, tuition assistance, and research and travel funds, Donovan said.